The perils of evolution

One day you wake up and watch the sun rise, ripe and scarlet over the savanna, and you know it can never hold you back.

The next, you’re unable to hold a conversation with other humans in the flesh, and you have the attention span of an unhinged hummingbird. Inside your head there are noises that would have terrified you before, on the plains, but now they are the background radiation of your mind. You’re surrounded by voices. Within this clamour there is only the silent pulse of a thought that never comes, an impulse suffocated by plenty, a drive misdirected by old mythology.

You long for the reality of stone, the scrape of grass on your bare legs, and the silence of nature, tooth and claw. You wonder if you should Tweet this yearning, but — hey, new Facebook interface!

Alltop used to hunt Facebook in the old days. Originally published in 2011, and now a part of Pirate Therapy. I thought I’d post it again, in light of the new FB changes :)

When Roombas Attack: The Singularity

My next novel has a comedic take on the Technological Singularity, so I thought I’d start to do some more posts about the topic here on The Skwib. The following video is a kind-of companion piece for a Time article that came out earlier this year about the Singularity and one of its main proponents, Ray Kurzweil. It is presented by the Earth’s “premier science comedian”. I’m not sure what the hell that means, but it is funny!

The Frankenstein myth predates the story told by Mary Shelly, incidentally. A form of it is as old as Prometheus, in which the Titan steals the secrets of civilization and gives it to human beings. (Zeus doesn’t like this very much, and punishes Prometheus by forcing him to donate his liver to a large avian of the family accipitridae on a daily basis.) In Jewish folklore there is the golem, which is created from clay and in many accounts destroys its creator, largely because it’s so difficult to find a decent corned beef sandwich in medieval European cities.

In most of these stories, at heart is the idea of human hubris — an overweening pride or arrogance that defies the gods, or in modern stories, reality. Well, that and dodgy meals.

Hubris has always been a component of the human heart. Without it we wouldn’t try to create things, but if we rely on it too much, we can get ourselves in trouble. Most of our problems with technology stem from this irrational confidence that we can control our own creations — something that is manifestly untrue. If you ever get the feeling that our technology is out of control, you’re not alone. And you’re more sane than those who believe technology is something we command at will. It’s a bias we all have, because it’s rational.

We can control individual technologies, in the absence of other technologies and systems. But once they start to interact, they become more difficult to understand. The very rationality that allowed us to create science and technology in the first place now undercuts our ability to understand the gestalt of many technologies and systems interacting. That is not to say we shouldn’t TRY to understand them, but it is to say we should show more humility with the further creation of new technologies.

I will now demonstrate a complete lack of humility by inserting a cartoon of a monkey pirate. You didn’t see that coming did you?

Alltop is funnier than monkeys, pirates and robots combined. Originally published June, 2011.

Why Everyone Should Read Cat’s Cradle

“Now I will destroy the whole world.”
– What Bokonists say when they commit suicide, Cat’s Cradle, Chapter 106

Cat's cradleYou’d think a story about the end of the world – not just the world of one person, or human civilization, but all life on the planet – would be a grim affair, but Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is replete with wit, wry humour, and a touching compassion for human frailty.

Vonnegut’s book is no bright dystopia, like the one portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor is it as unrelentingly dark as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s our world that Vonnegut so amusingly satirizes, a world in which human beings are awfully good at creating doomsday devices (atomic bombs, religions), and lying to themselves.

Many have said this is a story about the insanity of the Cold War, but I think it’s a short history of human stupidity. And it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1963. The plot follows a narrator who is writing a book about one of the creators of the atomic bomb and in the process discovers the scientist has also made Ice-9, a substance with the potential to turn all water into solid ice. Why invent such a dangerous thing? Come on, science can’t be held back by such existential worries – it’s progress, baby.

Our world is beset with climate change caused by our technologies. As a species, we’re on the cusp of massive changes that could exceed the pace of evolution – whether from genetic engineering or through fusing our biology with information technology – and this is precisely the kind of book that everyone needs to read.

We need to think about what we are doing with our scientific power, not just proceed blindly.

Cat’s Cradle is the book that helped me find a way I could be a writer: it’s literary, but it plays with science fictional tropes; it’s funny, but there’s a point to it all. In it he invents a religion, Bokonism, that is both humane and ironic, and that puts the lie to all other human religions. He spoofs geopolitics as easily as he skewers human egocentrism. And he does it all with humour and prose that’s accessible and well crafted. It’s deceptively simple, in fact. You can’t help but be moved, and then you think, “How did he do that?”

The short chapters are perfect for today’s attention-deficit-disordered readers (at least, until we have our concentration chips implanted), so it works as a book that everyone at university could read.

Not to mention all the great ideas (foma: a harmless untruth) and kickass existential “Calypso” lyrics from the Book of Bokonon:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself, he understand.

Alltop enjoys a good apocalypse. Originally appeared on The Mark in 2010, and thanks to Nodoca for the photo.